The Arab League's Role in the Syrian Civil War

By T M
2014, Vol. 6 No. 07 | pg. 2/4 |

Syria’s third non-Arab neighbour is Turkey. It has spent $3 billion to host close to a million Syrian refugees, and has seen 75 citizens killed in violence spilling across the border.59 From 2004-2011, Turkey held close cultural, economic and political ties with Syria, including joint Ministerial meetings. When Turkey recognized that Assad’s regime “did not listen”60 to diplomatic efforts, it cut ties in August 2011.61 Maddy-Weitzman concludes that Turkey is the only regional actor “that could tip the balance against the regime.”62

The permanent UNSC members, notably Russia, China and the USA, hold significant roles in the Syrian crisis and influence LAS capacity to intervene. China’s guiding principle is one of non-interference in others’ domestic affairs. After the perceived abuse of UNSCR197363 establishing a no-flight-zone and imposing a ceasefire in Libya, Ambassador Li Baodong complained that “[t]here must be no attempt at regime change or involvement in civil war by any party under the guise of protecting civilians.”64 Russia’s Putin similarly denounced the West for bombing Gaddafi’s palace and allowing his extra-judicial killing.65

Russia insists on UN-backed solutions, but has vetoed three draft UNSC resolutions on Syria66 for fear of renewed violations of Syria’s sovereignty and for economic and political reasons.67 The Mediterranean port of Tartus is Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet borders, and Syria has been an important purchaser of Russian military hardware.68 Political influence in the post-revolution Middle East is even more important.69 Russian criticism is still rising70, and may be one reason for agreement on UNSCR213971 this February, however watered-down in avoiding ultimatums and penalties for noncompliance.72

Finally, Western powers – including the region’s former colonisers – continue to meddle with Middle Eastern affairs and pan-Arab aspirations.73 As stated in the introduction, the UN Charter encourages ‘division of labour’ with regional organisations. Evidencing some “regional diplomacy with … Western approval”74, the League is often perceived as a second-tier actor. It only played a decisive role when the UN hesitated to act or had reached a deadlock. Regional actors “chose to ‘freeze’ the conflict resolution process … when they still had … hope for an [outside] intervention”75. The need for unlikely UNSC authorization of regional intervention further restricts the League’s possibilities.76

Conflicts in the Middle East

3. A role for the Arab League: Lessons from the past and present

All actors call for a political solution in Syria and warn of spill-over effects for neighbouring countries.77 With the changing context outlined in section 2, it is necessary to devise plans which are both effective and realistic. To suggest the League’s possible role in resolving the crisis, consideration of past LAS responses in Syria and elsewhere help understand the LAS’ toolbox.78

3.1. Arab League interventions: From Kuwait via Lebanon to Libya

The League Pact’s two articles to deal with disputes and aggressions against member states79 are intended to ensure collective security, not to manage intra-state conflicts.80 Nevertheless, the LAS has established military peacekeeping forces.81 The first was notable as it was directed against one of its members. Newly independent Kuwait had passed the Council vote to join the LAS.82 Responding to Iraqi threats, the 3,300-strong83 LAS mission replaced British troops within only weeks to deter attacks.84 The force was withdrawn in 1963 without having had to fight demonstrating the League’s institutional capacity.

The second LAS intervention was during Lebanon’s sectarian Civil War. Syria, which had allowed the Palestine Liberation Army to enter Lebanon earlier that year, reversed its policy in June 1976 by sending armoured divisions into the country to support opposing Maronite militias. Lebanon, Egypt and the PLO immediately reacted and called for an extraordinary Council meeting.85 As a result of the 7-point resolution the ‘Symbolic Arab Security Force’86 was established to secure ceasefires and “bring about comprehensive national reconciliation.” Again, ensuring “the country’s sovereignty, security and stability” was a main objective.87

Supervised by the Secretary-General, the force was “to maintain security and stability in Lebanon … replacing the Syrian forces” until the President-elect so requests.88 It was accompanied by dispatching a diplomatic Commission89 to represent the Council. After Lebanese President Frangieh backed Syria’s refusal to allow the LAS force’s deployment, LAS Secretary-General Riad had to make the concession that Lebanon would have final say about the “size and nationality of the Arab troops.”90

Fearing their alignment with the Palestinian guerrillas, Frangieh used this clause to have Libyan troops withdrawn. The primacy of Lebanese sovereignty was part of the reason for failure, as were the some 20,000-strong Syrian troops ridiculing the 2,500 LAS forces.91 At the October 1976 Riyadh Conference and the subsequent Cairo Summit Arab leaders, therefore, transformed the force into the ‘Arab Deterrent Force’. Consisting of 30,000 men it was to enforce a ceasefire and deter further violence.

The Riyadh Conference is symptomatic for the League’s two-tier system. Only six countries92 decided that “all parties should definitively cease fire and terminate all fighting,” and that “the [PLO] shall affirm its respect for the sovereignty” of Lebanon.93 Arab Kings and Heads of State endorsed the Riyadh resolutions at the Cairo Summit and discussed funding mechanisms.94 Because new Lebanese President Sarkis, who determined national contingents, was closely aligned with Syria the ‘Arab Deterrent Force’ de-facto strengthened Damascus’ influence.

By 1979 the force had contributed to reduced fighting but consisted entirely of Syrian troops. Egypt, which could have ensured a more balanced force, never contributed for fear of threatening peace negotiations with Israel. After Israel invaded Lebanon, the UNSC sidelined Arab leaders. Afraid of slowing the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian troops, Lebanon discontinued the mandate in July 1982.95

In mediation, Secretary-General Moussa achieved successes during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war and 2008 Lebanese sectarian clashes. In 2006, after Hezbollah attacked an Israeli patrol, a 34-day war began. The LAS mediated between Arabs to facilitate a common position, the Siniora seven-point plan, and engaged the UNSC in its drafting of UNSCR1701, which eventually ended the war. A Committee of Arab ministers travelled to New York to meet the UN Secretary-General ensuring an acceptable UNSCR.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia took a leading role in supporting the LAS in shuttle-diplomacy and arranging extra-ordinary meetings to diffuse tensions within Lebanon and between Syria and Lebanon, still hostile after al-Hariri’s assassination. LAS responses to 2008 Sunni-Shia clashes are considered the most successful mediation. Fighting began when the opposition attempted to violently oust the Lebanese government in late-2007. The 2008 LAS Summit drafted a peace plan96 and designated Secretary-General Moussa as facilitator of long abandoned dialogue between the factions. An 11 May LAS emergency meeting agreed on dispatching an Arab Ministerial Committee. The Committee arrived in Lebanon only three days later to meet political and military leaders, and succeeded in summoning all parties to Doha for a five-day dialogue. The Committee and Secretary-General Moussa used their mandate to attune proposals and rally Arab leaders’ support. The LAS was instrumental in brokering the final agreement after eighteen months of violence.97

The failed experiences of the 1970s and successes of the 2000s go a long way in highlighting the difficulties of joint Arab action in light of the primacy of national sovereignty. This principle was surprisingly disregarded for the first time when the LAS supported Western military intervention in Libya to establish a no-flight-zone and eventually topple President Gaddafi. Perceived infringement of the UNSCR mandate led to much disappointment98 over an intervention initially called for by Qatar and Saudi Arabia with wide support among LAS and GCC countries.99

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